How The Internet Chews Up And Spits Out Its Viral Celebrities

Uproxx/Getty/Shutterstock/Maggie Goldenberger

It seems like forever ago that America was celebrating the arrival of a new folk hero. Forced into the spotlight after the second presidential debate, Ken Bone won over the world with his soft voice, slightly misguided query, and iconic red sweater (which sold out minutes after being identified as a reasonably-priced Izod).

In the days that followed, Bone went on a whirlwind press tour, appearing on every network and website you’ve ever heard of (including ours). For all his affability, he became a meme, a sexy Halloween costume, and, most importantly, the bright spot in a bleak election cycle. Then the levees broke. Bone carelessly used his actual Reddit account to hold an AMA, revealing that he enjoyed porn, had a vasectomy but didn’t struggle with sensation or ejaculate volume, and held only a tenuous grasp of the details of the Trayvon Martin case.

Within hours, the public had turned. “Finally, it’s safe to come out of the closet and confess that I always hated Ken Bone,” wrote Gersh Kuntzman of The New York Daily News, before raining down a stream of vitriol. Elsewhere, Bone was pilloried for “selling out” to Uber, which may have been an FTC violation (never mind that most Americans would quickly do the same), for once lying about his insurance to get a job (which Bone later admitted was a fabricated fabrication), and for cashing in on his “ill-gotten” fame.

During his 48-hour ride on the news cycle roller coaster, Bone and his red sweater were feted, torn apart, and eulogized. Sure, his end could have come more swiftly (and kindly) if we’d all just stopped paying attention, but there’s a certain order to the way these things play out. Both human curiosity and the media’s need to follow the thread even if it goes to an unpleasant place are culpable. Sure, many outlets debated running with Bone’s Reddit history, but in the end, we all did it. How do you deny the numbers? How do you turn away from a story people want?

Once Bone’s public free fall started, he was quick to address it on Twitter:

“I want to thank all the people both online and in person that reached out to encourage me yesterday,” Bone posted. “Haters gonna hate. #likersgonnalike.”

The first response, posted less than a minute later, read “no one likes you. get over it.” Then, “you memed too close to the sun.”

As Ken Bone rapidly learned, the public loves as good as it hates. But while someone’s 15-seconds of internet fame can end in an instant, the after-effects can last for a long time.

Truth And Consequences

“I knew the risks,” Talia Jane says. She’s calling from Brooklyn, where she’s recently moved. In February, Jane was living in San Francisco, working for Yelp, and finding it tough to make ends meet. She’d been up front about her financial struggles to her employers, but when they didn’t take her seriously, she wrote an open letter to the company’s CEO and posted it on Medium. She thought it would be a shortcut to spark conversation. The worst thing that could happen, she believed, was being fired. She went viral instead.

“I figured, ‘Oh, if I lose this job because of this, I’ll just get another job with the same pay, just keep suffering,'” Jane says. “I didn’t realize that it would get so intense and so big that it would almost make me afraid to apply for jobs.”

Jane’s letter was a true internet phenomenon. One second it was just another document floating in space, and the next it was everywhere. Jane had no choice but to stand in awe at the incredible power of the social share.

“I think I refreshed Twitter and I suddenly had like 150 notifications,” she says. “I refreshed my notifications like a second later, and it was like 150 more. I was like, “Oh, shit.” Then I checked the stats on Medium, and I was like, “Whoa. This has ballooned.'”

Jane’s first feeling upon realizing she’d gone viral? Pure terror.

“I was scared because I was like, ‘Holy shit. How am I supposed to buy groceries or leave my apartment because someone might recognize me?’ The local news put up a terrible selfie of me, a really big selfie like, ‘Look at this chick who says she was crying in the bathtub because she couldn’t afford to eat.'”

Like Bone, Jane was treated as if she was somehow required to represent more than just herself. For some people, she was another entitled millennial; for others, she was a folk hero who stood up to the man. Her open letter sparked a firestorm of more open letters, and suddenly Jane’s theoretical worst-case-scenarios seemed laughable by comparison. Her very real concerns — not being able to feed herself or pay rent while working full-time for a multi-million dollar corporation with a very rich owner — were mostly ignored. It was far easier to take a jab at her audacity or try to teach her a lesson; not about the power of one, but about how young workers in a middling economy should be neither seen nor heard.

Jane was clearly right to be worried about her future employment prospects. When you google her name today, the open letter is the first result. It’s followed by a Forbes article asking whether Jane deserves the backlash she got. Things descend quickly from there. The fourth result, a piece from The National Review, refers to Jane as entitled and a fraud right in the headline.

“I’ve had realizations months later, certain impacts that the letter has had on me,” Jane says about the emotional toll that going viral took. “I could not have predicted that I would find myself suddenly overcome and crying on my kitchen floor just because my friend and I were texting and his tone got a little bit too argumentative and it reminded me of all the vitriol.”

Jane knows your counter arguments. She recognizes that writing an open letter is playing with fire. She doesn’t have the Bone defense of, “I didn’t invite any of this.” She does cringe when she sees other people going viral, though. “That level of visibility is really scary,” she says, “and it can be really hard to figure out how to cope with. People have said to me that I handled my situation with grace. I’m like, ‘No, there was just so much coming at me that I couldn’t respond to any of it.'”

The Uncourted, Unwanted Spotlight

“Oh my god,” I scream when Maggie Goldenberger calls me.

“What?” She asks. “What did you say?”

“Oh my god,” I respond. “I said, ‘oh my god,’ though if we’re being honest, I wanted to scream ermahgerd. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she laughs. “It’s fine.”

Goldenberger, if you haven’t already guessed, is the woman behind the ERMAHGERD GERSEBERMPS meme that’s been continuously making the rounds since 2012. There’s no real story behind it — and no one really cares what the truth is — but you’ve seen the picture: a teenage girl in braces and pigtails, who seems a little too excited about reading. Not even Goldenberger gets why she’s famous, and she claims to have a pretty good sense of humor. But she’s over it, too.

Goldenberger formally revealed herself in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview — the only real positive to this whole ordeal, she says, because it distracted her from thinking about a breakup — but she’d spent years being silent. Many attributed it to the fact that she was somehow frightened of the media, but the reality is that Goldenberger, who didn’t do anything to become a celebrity, just didn’t have much to say. In truth, speaking to her does seem to kill some of the magic of the meme. She didn’t have any great insight into her fame and while she appreciated hearing that she was my husband’s favorite meme, there wasn’t anything she could do with that information.

Unlike the photograph, Goldenberger isn’t trapped in time. It’s been more than a decade, and she’s grown up. The picture, Darryn King points out in his piece for Vanity Fair, isn’t even authentic. It was its own meme between friends — a character named “Pervy Dale” that Goldenberger was playing for fun. The snapshot was taken for comedic effect.

For the most part, Goldenberger’s come to grips with her internet fame — although she said “oh no” wearily when I suggested that her picture is iconic — but there are things that she’s still upset by, years later. During the hunt for her identity, those who knew her offered up the information that she was gay. “At the time I was out,” she says. “But I was dating someone who wasn’t out to a lot of their family. I just don’t know why people thought it was okay.”

“A lot of my personal information was released without my knowledge and no one was asking me. It was just very invasive. I’m not a square. I see the humor in it and I think it’s fun, but I had no say in any of it.”

Monetizing Notoriety

Besides the invasion of privacy, Maggie Goldenberger is also annoyed that while her image has been used on every type of licensed merchandise you might imagine, no one ever bothered to contact her or kick her any of the profits. It was as if, by taking a funny picture as a preteen, Goldenberger had suddenly made herself public domain, granting anyone and everyone the use of her likeness without having to ask for her permission. She got all the unwanted attention and none of the sweet meme-t-shirt money.

Being ignored when it comes to cashing in on viral fame seems like the best possible outcome. Goldenberger is annoyed, sure, but she’s still beloved. Ken Bone, who tried to capitalize on his fame and fortune, was vilified for it. And it’s likely Goldenberger would have been, too. There are, of course, no set rules of decorum when it comes to “blowing up,” but one thing seems abundantly clear: As soon as you’re perceived as buying into your own fame or trying to market it in any way, you become ungrateful.

“We gave you some time in the sun,” the internet seems to say, “but it wasn’t ever truly something you deserved. And it’s certainly nothing you should profit off. Because we made you.”

Try to benefit from your two-step with fame and you can be sure the impending backlash will be a harsh one.

Getting The First (And Last) Laugh

What is the right way to respond to going viral? Bone tried affably agreeing to participate in the media circus. Talia Jane needed to retreat. Others, still, laugh at the fact that they’ve become famous, not due to talent or perseverance but because they were caught in a cultural moment. They met the zeitgeist at the crossroads.

“In mid-April, I was just walking out of the train station at 7:30 at night, going to see a show with my friends on a Saturday,” Mario Licato tells us. “I was walking up the stairs and suddenly a fist was coming towards my face and then I heard, ‘That’s because you look exactly like fucking Shia LaBeouf!’ I fell down the stairs and blacked out. I woke up and my glasses were split off my face and I was laying in a pile of blood with a bunch of people looking at me. I had a black eye for a month. I couldn’t feel my nose for a month.”

Others may have been traumatized, but Licato saw the humor in it. After Licato’s friend sent a picture of his injuries to Gothamist, his internet fame rocketed to the stratosphere. Suddenly, he was trending over Beyonce’s Lemonade on Facebook and it was open season on getting photos of the dude who became a celebrity after being punched for looking like one.

The New York Post called me,” he says,”and they were like, ‘Mario Licato, this is the New York Post, we have reporters outside of your apartment right now could you please come outside?’ And I was like, ‘One, how did you get my address? And two, I’m at work.’ I was like, ‘You can tell your reporters to go home.'”

For an entire week, people asked Licato for photos. On the street, in elevators, and at shows, he was approached by people who wanted a souvenir, some proof that they’d met Shia LaBeouf’s doppleganger. It was a surreal experience, one that Licato says he’d absolutely repeat if he were offered the opportunity. “I’d get hit again if I thought it’d go viral,” he says.

In the end, Licato got a call and an offer to share soup from the real LaBeouf, who seemed to see the humor in the whole thing.

Licato’s story feels like a net positive. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t try to control the narrative or because he made it clear he thought his fame was funny and completely unwarranted before anyone else could. By owning what makes you ridiculous, you can inoculate yourself against mockery. Or maybe people just felt bad because of the smashed nose.

“I was lucky because I posted something funny about it before I went viral,” Licato says, “so everybody was being very nice to me. I’m sure I would have gotten attacked otherwise. Before any of this happened I posted a selfie of my eye and said, ‘Thanks to the guy who punched me last night for looking like Shia Labeouf!’ I’m sure if I didn’t do something like that I probably would have gotten attacked.”

But self-deprecation is a delicate art. Ken Bone made tons of jokes before his Reddit past comments caught up with him. He let people poke fun at him, he looked forward to being mocked on SNL and South Park, he was generous with his time and never tried to influence anyone’s opinions. And he was still shredded by an internet community that generally doesn’t mind if someone is into pregnancy porn.

What led to his downfall? Perhaps, as Nico Lang points out over at Salon, Bone was too self-aware. Perhaps we prefer our memes a little more bemused and grateful. Or perhaps we prefer them to be unhappy with their newfound status, suggesting a kind of humility that we all should aspire to. Perhaps Bone’s eager attitude prevented us from being allowed to create our own mythology for him.

If memes are, as Lang points out, inherently dehumanizing, then what do we do with the real live person behind them?

What Viral Celebrity Says About Us

As the above examples illustrate, almost every person who gets hitched to a viral comet ends up getting dragged a little. The ones who make it through relatively unscathed — like Mario Licato — aren’t people who were universally beloved, they’re just the ones who were able to sign out, log off, and keep living.

But for every Licato, there are plenty of Talia Janes who are scarred by the experience. This emotional response isn’t something we often talk about. We like our viral celebrities to be one dimensional. Thinking of them as anything other than what they became famous for (asking a debate question in a red sweater, writing an open letter, saying ‘damn, Daniel’ in a weird voice) is just too complicated.

The fact is that this who cycle reveals a few things about the rest of us: Our judgmental natures, our capacity for envy, and, most importantly, our inability to humanize our memes. The fact that we can collectively build someone up, just to tear them down again displays a stark lack of empathy. Even when we know we shouldn’t torture others, even when our viral playthings beg to be left alone, we continue poking and prodding at them.

If we admit that these are real people we’re talking about, then we have to also admit that our words and opinions about these viral stars have the potential to affect lives. The longer you talk to people like Bone, Jane, Licato, or Goldenberger, the clearer it becomes that compassion ought to extend to the internet.

Surviving With No Regrets

The last question that I ask Talia Jane, a few days after our first conversation, is whether she wishes she could have gone back in time and written her letter to Yelp’s CEO anonymously.

“Logistically, that would’ve been better,” she responded, “but I don’t know if Yelp would’ve made changes if I hadn’t used my existing online presence and nobody read my letter.”

She points me to an article on Quartz that details the changes that Yelp made shortly after her firing, including the wage increase she’d originally asked for. Although she wasn’t named when the changes were announced, Jane believes that her letter was the catalyst that sparked the adjustment to employee salaries. But by that time — the announcement came in April, she had been fired in February — she was long gone. While some media outlets connected her widely circulated letter to the workplace improvements, this news wasn’t nearly as big as backlash. And even though she was right in the end, Talia Jane will continue being seen (by many) as another idiot millennial who wanted too much.

“Do you have any advice for people who go viral?” I ask.

“I think the best advice I can give is to just embrace it, the good and the bad, and hunker down because it’ll be over. You’ll feel a lot lighter once that spotlight is off of you.”

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